Breakthrough By-Elections: The Big Picture of Labour’s Modernisation

Peter Kyle MP, the man who masterminded Labour’s breathtaking win in Mid-Beds, has called the result ‘a political earthquake’. But he’s wrong. It’s much bigger than that. An earthquake may shake the walls, knock over a few vases, and take down some buildings. The results from Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth are a meteorite hitting the planet, irreversibly transforming the ecology.

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party took the message to the true-blue villages and small towns of a constituency which has had only five Conservative MPs since 1931, and won. In Mid-Beds, Labour overturned the biggest majority in modern by-election history, beating the Lib Dem win in Tiverton last year. In Tamworth, Labour’s 23.9 swing was even bigger than the 1996 by-election which heralded Blair’s landslide.

The Liberal Democrats positioned themselves as the alternative to the Tories, hoping to scoop up the tactical, protest votes as they successfully did in Chesham & Amersham. They attacked the Labour candidate – now MP – Alistair Strathern. They ran their notorious ‘Labour can’t win here’ bar charts in fake news ‘local newspapers’. Their leaflets dripped poison through the letter boxes. But the people weren’t buying it. In Tamworth, the Liberal Democrats came joint-sixth with the Greens, behind UKIP, Reform, and the odious Britain First.

The anger about Nadine Dorries, Mid-Bed’s former MP and current C-list celebrity, was palpable, but not decisive. It provided the backcloth to Labour’s tightly targeted campaign highlighting hyper-local issues such as antisocial behaviour. In Tamworth, the resignation of Carlton Club groper Chris Pincher added to the public’s rejection of Tories but does not explain the seismic 20-point swing to Labour.

The big picture of modernisation

The big picture is that Labour’s modernisation since 2020 is the decisive factor in these historic wins. Only a modern, centrist, sensible Labour Party could have achieved such a stunning result in Mid-Bedfordshire or Tamworth. It is certain proof that modernisation works. It vindicates the hard graft by modernisers in local meetings, on the NEC, inside the PLP, and in the Leader’s Office to rid the Labour Party of its nasty extremists and its Soviet-era ideological baggage.

The fact that Labour could win over voters who voted Leave, who voted for Boris Johnson, who never had a Labour MP or councillor, speaks volumes about how far Labour has come since the debacle under Corbyn. The victory comes days after major Labour announcements on building new homes and tackling the climate crisis and it comes despite the Lib Dem lie machine rolling into town, and the Tories’ Trumpian playbook being deployed. People voted Labour.

Combined with Labour’s triumph in Rutherglen & Hamilton West on a 20-point swing from SNP to Labour, there is a strong sense that a new coalition of voters is being painstakingly constructed – people who care about public services, want good jobs, are sick and tired of crime and anti-social behaviour, and are ambitious for their children. They are repulsed and revolted by the last-days-of-Rome Tories. They live in Scotland, Wales, and England. They don’t care for little Sunak. They want change. And they are looking afresh at Keir Starmer’s Labour Party.

The next test for the Tories may well come sooner than they would like. In Blackpool South, the Tory MP Scott Benton is facing a ten-day suspension and possible by-election. The seat was Labour for 22 years after 1997, and the Tory majority in 2019 was an anaemic 3690. This is a seat Labour can take, on current form, without breaking into a sweat.

In Wellingborough, Tory Peter Bone faces an array of serious allegations from a former aide, which may well trigger another by-election. The seat, on slightly different boundaries, was Labour between 1997 and 2005. Peter Bone’s majority is 18,540, with Labour in second place. The circumstances and demographics suggest Wellingborough will go the way of Tamworth and Mid-Beds.

There are some important caveats to rain on Labour’s parade. One is the usual guff about by-elections mid-term, and their unreliability as predictors of General Election outcomes. The other, more significant, is that Sunak has a sizeable majority despite his multiple defeats in this parliament. John Major faced Blair in 1997 with a majority of zero. Starmer, to gain a majority of just one, must win a bigger swing than we achieved in the 1997 landslide. Sunak has time, too. The latest he could call an election is January 2025. Who knows what events, dear boy, events, will derail and disrupt our politics over the coming months?

A quiet moment of satisfaction ahead of a long marathon

Labour can allow itself a moment of quiet satisfaction today. Last night’s brilliant results show that if you select decent candidates, run positive, efficient, disciplined campaigns, and reassure the voters we have changed forever and won’t nationalise Sainsbury’s, then we can find our winning mojo once more. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a marathon to run, over stony ground, in pouring rain, with deep ditches on either side.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out the previous instalment of Paul on Politics, Ten ways to tell if Labour is ready to govern